John and I loved exploring the surrounding villages on their market days, and the long wooden table in Julia's kitchen became cluttered with artichokes, lettuces, wild herbs, and much more of Provence's beautiful summer bounty. I also had my eye on Julia's large marble mortar and pestle, which sat on the floor near the kitchen door, and I just had to find an excuse to use it.
As it turned out, the opportunity came when we invited the Fischbachers (Simca and her husband) along with four of their houseguests to lunch on La Pitchoune's terrace. I planned to do a butterflied sea bass and mushroom dish that I was going to put on La Tulipe's menu when we returned to New York. We drove to Nice for the fish and found the market, which had always been bustling in previous visits, almost empty. Unbeknownst to us, there was a strike occurring that day. The fish section of the market looked surreal with so few people and no fish in sight. We searched the market anyway, and in a stroke of luck, discovered that the only fish to be had were hidden in barrels: beautiful shiny sardines. We bought a few pounds and spent hours cleaning them. I prepared them en escabeche (lightly sautéed and then marinated) as the appetizer.
Under the circumstances, I abandoned my vision of the sea bass and chose instead to make the main course a soupe au pistou, the hearty Provençal vegetable soup similar to an Italian minestrone. How could I have considered any other dish, I wondered, as I admired the green finger-length zucchini and yellow squash, the leeks and luscious tomatoes, the white beans so fresh they needed no soaking, the fragrant basil, and the bright blue-and-gold can of Alziari's olive oil that we'd gathered in Nice, all spread out on the long kitchen table.
What makes soupe au pistou so special is the pistou—a pesto without nuts—that you add to the soup just before serving. Pistou is magical in how it turns a simple vegetable soup into something totally different and infinitely more wonderful. What better excuse did I need to use Julia's mortar and pestle? Crushing handfuls of the basil and garlic with oil with Julia's pestle took a lot longer than grinding it in my food processor, as I usually did, but speed was not a factor here. Even though I don't have a single cooking friend who owns a mortar and pestle or would consider making pesto in one, I just loved mashing the pistou in that mortar. The resulting thick purée was a revelation, and the soup was exceptional.
Dessert was a strawberry tart. Pastry has always been what I do best; as James Beard once told me, this is because I have cold hands. A thin layer of pastry cream covered the baked shell, and beautiful strawberries from nearby Carpentras—famous for its fraises—topped the cream.
I'll admit I was a little nervous about cooking for Simca Beck, but I was pleased with how the lunch turned out. As the Fischbachers were leaving, Simca told me that Richard Olney, the American food writer who lived in Provence and was best known for his French Menu Cookbook and Simple French Food, had visited them the week before. "He did soupe au pistou," declared Simca. I've never been sure if she was implying that Olney's version was better, but happily I'll never know. That would spoil my memory of meeting Julia, and of our perfect stay at La Pitchoune, complete with bragging rights to bathing in the same narrow tub Beard got stuck in on one of his many visits.
Sally Darr started out as a textile designer, but a passion for cooking led her to the test-kitchen staff of the Time-Life Foods of the World series, and in 1969, at James Beard's suggestion, to the Gourmet magazine test kitchen as the food editor. Ten years later, she and her husband opened their own restaurant, La Tulipe, in New York City, which ran successfully for 12 years.